Orson Welles, one of Hollywood's most enigmatic figures, chose Elmyr de Hory as the subject of his final film, "F is for Fake". Welles felt de Hory's story, told to him at a party over cocktails, was the stuff of legend, but not for the reason one might think.
Elmyr de Hory, you see, was a painter of counterfeits. And, for a period of roughly twenty years he was able to sell between 750 and 1700 of his reproductions of Picasso, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Vermeer and others, as authentic. All done, most controversially, with the full knowledge of a network art-dealers and (a few) collectors alike.
Welles's documentary is difficult to watch and much too long for the subject matter, but the reward for your patience is this: The art world, with it's insatiable appetite for high-end works in post-war Europe and America, created the opening for de Hory and his kind. There was simply not enough of the good stuff to go around, apparently.
Welles details how in a boom economy, there is so much money floating around looking for a place to land, the demand for goods in the luxury category far outstrips the available supply. This synapse in the supply/demand chain creates a tremendous amount of pressure on suppliers. who must be able to deliver desirable merchandise for their customers, or risk being left behind in such an hyper-charged economic environment.
Fast forward to today. While most of the world suffers through what is being called an "prolonged economic downturn," there is a small, but (economically) significant, group of people to whom the last few years have been the rosiest of times. And in such panicked times, these people have made purchasing a hyper-priority.
Which makes a rich landscape for those few souls, daring enough to create, market and peddle their wares to those seeking the best of the best. Compounding the problem is the newly-created market-segment of "Accessible Luxury," which has introduced tens of millions more consumers into the luxury equation.
Counterfeiters, in the face of this demand, have really stepped up production of their goods, and started to drift into innovative new areas of opportunity. Here are a few cases that have recently come to light.
Philip Morris is bringing suit against 27 retailers, in New York and New Jersey, for selling counterfeits of it's signature brand of cigarettes, Marlboro. In an area of the country where it is not uncommon to pay $10 per pack (retail!), the company was having a hard time getting the law enforcement community to enforce extant law until an enterprising economist was able to show how much money is being lost in non-captured tax revenue during the sale of the fakes. Cigarettes are one of the highest taxed items available for sale in the U.S.
Undercover Police were led to a stash of 17,000 fake Air Jordan's, Calvin Klein clothing, Louis Vuitton handbags and other items, after noticing a newly purchased set of Duracell batteries had a strange addition on the package. . . the Energizer Bunny!
With ticket scalpers using the Internet to increase their customer pools, thus increasing the premium for great seats, counterfeiters have really stepped up their production of phony tickets. Just think, you can use paper to make an one-hundred dollar bill, or you can opt to make a Super Bowl ticket and get $5,000-$25,000 for your work. this is a much bigger problem in overseas, where demand for Football (soccer) tickets remains white-hot!
Micro-chips are what got Jack Nicholson in trouble in Martin Scorcese's Oscar-winning movie,"The Departed." In a case that smacks of fiction, a group of people were recently arrested for selling "thousands of inferior chips, which had been painted over with premium brands". . .to the United States Navy! Notice to aspiring counterfeiters, don't sell crap to an organization with an unlimited amount of money and resources to find and kill you, the U.S. government.
Prescription medicine counterfeiting is growing by 50% per year. A recent arrest uncovered a ring responsible for selling fake Claritin, Vicodin and Viagra. Which begs the question: What can you use instead of Viagra?
Hair Care Products
Police in Canada recently made a bust that netted a cache of fake flat-press irons. The phonies were spotted because they lacked safety labels. The idea of an electronic heating product, manufactured by someone solely interested in making the initial sale, gives me pause.
Counterfeit Gift Cards
Police in Cleveland, OH seek a group of people who have, thus far, used phony gift cards to net $70,000 in real gift-cards. I can't say I understand how that would work, but it wouldn't be the first time I didn't understand a criminal process.
The cost of premium cigars has skyrocketed, and with a continuing U.S. embargo on Cuba's most famous product, the market for Havana's best continues to be strong. One of the biggest fake cigar rings was recently busted up, an announcement that was big enough to merit space in the Cigar Afficionado.
Counterfeit Luxury Wine
The problem of counterfeit luxury wine is so pervasive, some authorities on the subject feel it has rendered the entire wine collecting business "in question." Benjamin Wallace's 'Billionaire's Vinegar' chronicles how the ultra-elite wine collecting set were fooled into believing an undiscovered stash of Thomas Jefferson's wine had been found and was available for purchase. If such a read is not up your alley, perhaps a short article about the difficulties being experienced during this holiday period.
Counterfeit H1N1 Medication
How could criminals resist the temptation to cash in on the biggest global crisis of our times? Fake Tamilflu tablets and H1H1 vaccines have been recovered in countries around the globe. Fortunately, the United States have been spared of such a discovery thus far.
So the truth of Orson Welles's theory has proven to be enduring. The criminal class adopts behavior, it would seem, tailored to the whims of the marketplace. Currently, they seem to be focused on just about everything other than the highly-penalized area of money production.
In the coming weeks and months one phrase will be at the forefront of my mind during my shopping trips, "Buyer Beware." If only because, in addition to F being for Fake, every other alphabet has joined the party.